DVD Review Of Gates Of Heaven

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 3/6/07


  Roger Ebert is perhaps the most famous film critic in America. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing. It should be noted, however, that that award was for the writing, not his analytical skills. What separates Ebert from most published critics is that he is better with words than most. A dozen or more of his reviews are classics whose words stick with me to this day, such as his review of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which ends this way:

  ‘Taxi Driver’ is a hell, from the opening shot of a cab emerging from stygian clouds of steam to the climactic killing scene in which the camera finally looks straight down. Scorsese wanted to look away from Travis’s rejection; we almost want to look away from his life. But he’s there, all right, and he’s suffering.

  This is a terrific piece of writing. Yet, Ebert is notoriously dense. He thinks that Steven Spielberg is a great filmmaker, and has panned many great films while praising schlock from the above mentioned hack, as well as the Star Wars films, and many other Hollywood junk fare, even as he recognizes, say, both the greatness and cultural relevance of the Up Series of Michael Apted. In short, his long time partner, Gene Siskel, who never quite had Ebert’s way with words, nonetheless understood the art of film far more deeply, and, while not a better writer, was certainly a better critic.

  This fatal shortcoming is nowhere more evident than in Ebert’s infamous DVD blurb about Errol Morris’s 1978 documentary about pet cemeteries, Gates Of Heaven (not to be confused with Michael Cimino’s monumental Western film flop Heaven’s Gate), which declares this film one of the top ten films of all time. Not one of the top ten documentaries of all time, but films! Hell, it’s not even close to being as good a film nor documentary as Morris’s later The Thin Blue Line nor The Fog Of War. Perhaps this was just a young critic trying to make his mark. But, the evidence for Ebert’s making outrageously dumb proclamations is long. One might argue this is a solid to good documentary, and that it even is an important one, for its portrait of weirdos unleashed a flood of documentaries, in the near three decades since, about losers, wackos, and society’s castoffs, as if there was some great significance to cultural failure.

  That said, the film has a perverse quality, as if watching someone slowly die, and trying to empathize with it. In that sense, the two films that most closely mirror it are fictive films- Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small and Tod Browning’s Freaks. One might also put it in league with the mockumentaries of Christopher Guest were it not played, or shot, straight. In fact, this is the film that Werner Herzog ate his shoe over. Morris had no money to finance the film and Herzog told him to do it anyway, and promised Morris that if he made a film, Herzog eat a shoe at the premiere, ala Charlie Chaplin in The Gold Rush. The act was subsequently made into the short subject film, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe.
  The film’s premise is that there are people who will pay thousands of dollars to bury their pets like humans. Ok, I’m a pet lover- a cat lover, but I’ve never done so. I’ve never viscerally understood why we bury humans. A corpse is a corpse is a corpse. As long as it is disposed of cleanly, who cares? Yet the film starts off with a disabled old man, Floyd McClure, who tried to start a pet cemetery south of San Francisco, the Foothill Pet Cemetery in Los Altos, because he was haunted by the memories and smells of an animal rendering plant he visited as a youth, as well as the death of his collie as a boy, when it was run over by a car. Manifestly lacking any business sense, the man soon lost his business- as well as did several other investors (one schlemiel lost thirty grand in 1970s cash!), and the animals- four hundred and fifty pets, had to be exhumed and moved to another better pet cemetery, the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park, in Napa Valley- which has designer plots, run by a family of even weirder folk, if possible.

  The founder, Cal Harberts- who bizarrely and without elaboration attributes the ‘explosion’ in pet ownership in the 1960s and 1970s to the dawning of the birth control pill, claims he wants his cemetery to be the best in the world, bar none, and he’s goddamned serious! He has two sons: Phillip is the older one, and is a control freak, who wears one of those ugly multi-colored shirts from the 1970s. He’s a former insurance salesman from Salt Lake City who feigns depth but is really an idiot, in the psychobabble vein- with mantras like ‘Mind over matter,’ who fears memorizing the routes to local animal clinic, to pick up corpses, wrongly. Then there’s his younger brother Danny- who’s also an idiot, but a more likable one, with a thin mustache and a bad love life, who is the heir apparent in the business, much to his older brother’s chagrin. He’s a stoner, and hard rock junky who gets off on playing his guitar- badly, across the canyon so he can hear it echo.

  Not much else occurs in the film, although there is a montage, near the end, of animal plots, with engravings and photos, which is strangely moving- somewhat akin to seeing photos of the war dead from Vietnam or Iraq, or a listing of Holocaust victim names. Yet, the Morris of the later, greater films, is still in utero here. There is not much in the way of plot- just as the MGM DVD is bare bones, with only a few trailers and not a single extra feature, just banal apothegms from grieving people, as well as some bizarre moments where people digress from their pets into other areas. None of the people are formally named, which adds an everyman quality to the film, even if it often confuses. The most interesting character in the film is the head of the animal rendering plant that the initial idiot, McClure, resents. The man seems to glee in the repugnance with which most people hold his industry- even as he snarkily claims rendering to be the oldest recycling profession around, and when he grins, one feels he is a totally amoral sadist at heart. Oddly, compared to the stream of idiots who blather on incessantly, he is a breath of relief. That Morris, unlike a Michael Moore, who always makes his documentaries about himself, or Werner Herzog, who obsesses on weird darers of fate, merely likes to let others speak becomes a positive thing in this almost stream of consciousness film. Morris never utters a word of querying here. And there was not alot that cinematographer Ned Burgess needed to do, for the film has a raw college film feel to it. This ‘simply film them’ technique reached its apotheosis in the recent The Fog Of War, where former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara mea culpas his life and the human desire to kill en masse. That film, not this one, could be argued as a Top Ten Of All Time film.

  In this film, Morris merely lets us look long and hard at the strangeness of humanity. This film is not about pets, nor even death, but the strange ways the human psyche can twist itself into a thousand little bizarre strands, none of which ever comes quite together in the same way. Yes, I love animals, and value them higher than most human beings, for they do not lie, cheat, nor steal. They may have less capabilities, but this also means they do not willfully deny those capabilities. Yet, when they are dead, as when a person dies, they are just dead meat. There is a fundamental difference between life and death. I knew this from the first I saw a man murdered. It is an irresoluble thing, and Morris is wise enough not to tackle it, merely use it to study people and why they believe in the odd things they do. This film could have been just as successful exploring religion, or UFO believers, or Bigfoot hunters. The real question is what impels these weird people to act as they do, or did? And how can they not recognize how silly they are, or were?

  It is now nearly three decades on, and the older folk are likely all dead. But, is Danny Harberts now a fiftysomething stoner, with a bald pate, and a gray ponytail, still digging holes for dead dogs, as Classic Rock blares into the night? And what of the con artist aspect of it all? I recently had to put a long time pet of mine to sleep. She was too far gone, and the cost of keeping her alive, for even a night, was outrageous, with no guarantees. To try to gouge and play on someone’s sentiment to pay several thousand dollars for a burial is, in my book, a pretty unethical thing to do- even more so than some questionable veterinarians out there, yet Morris never probes this aspect of the ‘industry’. One wonders why not. Perhaps it’s because all that his long line of lovable losers of love can muster are trite apothegms like, ‘There’s your dog; your dog’s dead. But where’s the thing that made it move? It had to be something, didn’t it?’

  The weirdest and most hypnotic person onscreen is an old lady who sits in her home’s doorway, and divides the film’s halves between McClure and the Harbertses. She is Florence Rasmussen- the poster girl for human strangeness, and she distractedly and digressively paints her tale of woe, and her no good grandson- whom she’s going to get money back from, and his whorish ex-wife, whom she calls a ‘tramp.’ What this has to do with dead pets is anyone’s guess, although she ends her soliloquy by lamenting the loss of a black kitten and suspecting that a kitty serial killer is on the prowl. She is sort of the addle-brained female equivalent of what Danny Harberts will likely end up as. Yet, despite all that, there is a genuine movement of emotion that the film conjures; as well as some truths- even if as trite as the quote which ends the last paragraph.

  Perhaps the greatest emotion conveyed is when dumb old Floyd McClure says, ‘When I turn my back, I don’t know you, not truly. But I can turn my back on my little dog, and I know that he’s not going to jump on me or bite me; but human beings can’t be that way.’ And this is why the film is worth watching. It is not even remotely a great film, but it is an interesting document, something that, like a truly great film, such as Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, could be sent on a spaceship for aliens to find in a million years, and tell something of what a real human was. The fact that such qualitatively disparate examples of an art form can reach the same level of inner….dare I say it?, truth, is one of those grand ineffables that makes art worth indulging, sort of like the last shot of Gates Of Heaven, of the Harberts’ growing dream cemetery at dusk. On and on it just is. Then, like life and dream, it all ends. So, too, humanity. Alack?

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]

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